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Subject: Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For? Love Letter Review rss

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Theron Seckington
United States
St. Louis
Missouri
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I mentioned Love Letter (2-4 players, des. Seiji Kanai) the other week in my Council of Verona review. Any sane man would have led a discussion of microgames with a review of Love Letter but, like Daniel Sickles before me, I plead temporary insanity and will now proceed to correct this error.

First, a little history, Japan apparently has a fascination with pocket-sized games that usually consist of a small deck of cards and perhaps a handful of tokens. Love Letter’s creator Seiji Kanai seems to enjoy this sort of design in particular and I’m interested in seeing some of his other work, especially the irrisitably-named Cheaty Mages. Love Letter comes in a quite fetching little cloth bag and many FLGS even carry it at the checkout. Publisher AEG brought Love Letter over to my side of the pond in 2012 and since then microgames have blown up in the states.

Love Letter does a lot of things really well. It has a story I can’t help but explain to new players: You are one of the Princess’s many suitors and your love letter must reach her hands at the end of the day! The game is played over several rounds and the winner takes a “token of affection;” whoever grabs a majority of the tokens wins (by virtue of being allowed to court the Princess). There’s two ways for a player to win: either have the highest card at the end of a round (which is over if all of the game’s 16 cards are depleted) or by being the last suitor standing by removing all your competition from the game.

The first one accomplishes itself, but the last one is the game’s meat. At the beginning of the round, before setting aside one or more cards (which nobody will see this round), everyone will receive a card. Then, on your turn, you draw a card and have to play one of the two cards in your hand. Each card has a special ability - the Priest lets you look at someone’s hand, the King lets you trade hands with someone, the Countess is high ranking (and thus, closer to the Princess) but you must discard her if she’s in your hand with the King or Prince. Some cards allow you to eliminate players: if you can guess which card a player is holding, the Guard will arrest them (LADY GUARDS! how often I have longed to type that phrase in a review of anything) while the Baron allows you to compare hands with a player and eliminate the lower-ranked one, very risky until a couple of the high-value cards come out. The Prince forces a player to discard, which may cause the player with the Princess to lose immediately (as she is displeased with that player’s letter and throws it in a fire!). Finally, the Handmaid protects against all this nonsense for one turn.

Very rarely am I able (or willing) to list off every special ability in the game and very rarely have I been so excited to play a game solely because of reading the reference card. As each player places cards in front of them, they’ll also be checking their little reference cards which tell you the amount of each card in the deck - so anyone with a sharp grasp of statistics can make an informed guess about who’s got whom.

I should have led with this review. I keep coming back to that. See, after playing Council of Verona (with its attendant Poison expansion) I have trouble getting on board a game of Love Letter. This is lot of personal preference, I’ll take a bluffing game to a deduction game any day, and there’s a lot to appreciate about Love Letter, but I like a game that makes me laugh and Love Letter hasn’t grabbed me like Council of Verona has. I love the influence it’s had on current game design; I love that even in the tiny rulebook there’s five pages dedicated to nothing but story and that each page has a lot of tiny theme-y bits on it - the rules suggest that people who lie when they have Guards or the Countess are “knaves” which ranks high among insults I wish would come back into fashion. I love how the goals and the setting are so mundane, compared to the murderous intrigues of Council of Verona (so long as you’ve got the Poison expansion) or the kingdom building struggles of Dominion or the world saving escapades of Pandemic. There are so few cards that a community of people who reskin the game has cropped up - I particularly like the serial killer and the Futurama versions. And it can be had for less than ten dollars!

Still, the heavy logic and deduction factor doesn’t lead to cascading bluff-and-rebluff decision trees like some games I might mention, and it keeps the game from being right for everybody. My sister accused me of “metagaming,” which wasn’t exactly the word she was looking for, I think, when I deduced who she had in her hand enough times to take the victory. The game has been “solved,” as they say, here (LD stands for “Little Decision” and “NO” stands for “you don’t have a lot of choice here”) with a pretty good table that lists the times you do or don’t really have decisions to make in the game. It’s pretty easy to teach and learn, BUT at the same time you’ll find mathy friends either get very, very bored once they figure it out or continue sadistically winning like big jerks.
And here’s the rub: I tentatively recommend this game. It travels well. It makes a good gift for the gamer in your life. And for some reason, maybe how relatable the theme is, maybe how everyone is very quiet and focused, maybe the lack of murder and intimidation, playing this game feels like an incredibly intimate experience. Yes, it’s competitive, yes, there’s only one winner in a round, yes, you’re trying to eliminate each other with logic and artifice, but there’s something about a shared meditative state that brings people together.

Of course, I spent most my childhood in a library. Maybe I’m just sentimental. Maybe that’s why a game called Love Letter speaks to me.
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Brent Kinney

Indianapolis
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Lionel....nice
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Dan Perrault

Greendale
Wisconsin
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Come on come on come on come on TOUCH ME BABE can't you see that I am not afraid
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Forget the princess and get your love letters to Lionel
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